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Downsizing To Little Too Late
As any high schooler forced to read the eighteenth-century classic Gulliver's Travels can testify, fantasy themes about miniature humanity have long been with us. And with its love of special effects, Hollywood has also toyed with the scale of shrunken humans (not to mention sprites and leprechauns) for about as long as there have been motion pictures.
The great majority of such movies have been pitched to family audiences and younger viewers. Some, like the various screen adaptations of Mary Norton's The Borrowers, come from beloved children's fiction. A few, like the Marvel blockbuster Ant-Man, come from comic books. And most are, no matter what the source material, primarily driven by the ambition to wow audiences with the visual fun of people made small in an outsized environment.
Still, I think it's no accident that movies like these are usually designed to appeal to children. In discussing Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (in these very pages) over twenty-five years ago, I argued that the film was "an amusing allegory of childhood heightened to a point approaching night terror. The movie's young heroes are caught in a world where everyone (and everything) is much bigger than they are. Their plight is an exaggeration of what all children experience emotionally. They feel constantly at risk in a capricious and dangerous world controlled by adults."
I certainly still stand by that view. Yet even full-grown adults can feel like they are living in a capricious and dangerous world where they have too little control over their own existence. There are always people who are more powerful, as well as global political and economic forces that seem to dominate our lives. Meanwhile polar ice melts, sea levels rise, hundred year storms seem to happen every six weeks, and the forces of nature on our troubled planet seem intent on reminding us that man is neither the lord of the fowl and the brute, nor the monarch of all he surveys.
In the nuclear space age that came after World War II, there were a few films that seemed to capture that sense of adult disquiet with the modern world. My favorite is The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), directed by Jack Arnold and written by Richard Matheson, from his own novel. It tells the tale of an affable, happily married fellow named Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams), who is exposed to a mysterious (possibly radioactive) mist and later a modern insecticide, setting off a disastrous "reversal of the growth process." Poisoned by his world, he begins to shrink. Doctors seek a cure, but are only able to stall his diminution briefly.
Carey is understandably filled with despair. He questions his manhood as his petite wife soon towers over him. He also loses his job. When his story goes public, the hounding of press and gawkers makes him a prisoner in a home that has become increasingly oversized and hostile. A brief friendship with a lovely woman, who is a natural born "little person," gives him a brief sense that he is not alone. And then he shrinks even further. Eventually, he is too small to be spotted or heard by his standing wife or brother. And the family cat, as well as a spider in the cellar, view him as prey. But winning a fight to the death with a larger arachnid brings him to a greater appreciation of his humanity and intelligence. And with that, comes acceptance of his fate.
By the film's end, Carey realizes that he will soon become infinitesimal, but decides that he might well be the "man of the future." Perhaps others will follow him into this "vast new world." And even if he is alone, he affirms the meaning of his life and concludes that "to God there is no zero."
It's all meant to be quite ponderously profound. And except for that final nod to the divine, smacks of mid-twentieth-century existentialism. The film skirts the worst pretentiousness, however, by never forgetting to entertain the viewer. For the time period and the budget, the special effects are quite good. And the predation scenes with the tabby and spider are still quite enjoyable as action sequences.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is definitely a film designed to appeal to thoughtful adult viewers, as well as pure escapism science fiction fans. Few of the movies featuring shrinking people that followed could claim the same maturity. (Think Innerspace as an example of the comedy-adventure fantasies that came later.)
That has now changed. Over ten years ago, Jim Taylor, writing partner of filmmaker Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants) introduced an idea—brought to him by his brother, associate producer Douglas Taylor—for a possible movie. What if a process could be developed to shrink people? What would that mean for resource usage and the economy? They speculated about "how many tiny people you could feed with one hamburger." That concept was developed and refined and funding was sought for over a decade. The final resulting movie is one entitled Downsizing.
Now, Mr. Payne is not known as an sf or fantasy filmmaker. Far from it. His forte is quiet, quirky realistic films about the banal lives of very ordinary people in a modern America, often represented by his native Nebraska (which also happens to be the title of his previous film). An absurdist sense of humor is usually present. But sf and fantasy elements? Not so much.
Although Mr. Payne was not interested in anything too preachy (and generally shudders at the idea of making a "message" movie), he was interested in creating a science fiction/political metaphor with possible insights into modern life. This he has done. And, generally speaking, his avoidance of genre trappings serves his movie well—at the same time that it made it (sadly) less likely that general audiences would embrace it.
The film opens at a research institute in Norway where scientists are seeking ways to counter the disastrous effects of overpopulation and feverish consumption on our increasingly fragile Earth. How can human life become more sustainable? Global solutions are sought. And then, a breakthrough. A process is developed to miniaturize human and animal life. People can be reduced to only five inches tall. It is possible to create "a self-sustaining community of the small." And the Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgård) who develops the process puts his body where his theories are. He and his wife are some of the first people on Earth to get small. The Norwegian approach to tiny sustainability is all very crunchy granola. They build an agrarian life and live simply in a small fiord-side rough-hewn village. You will not be surprised to learn that Americans take a much different approach to the process.
In the U.S., the selling point is less about saving the planet than about saving yourself some serious moolah. It seems that a modest total equity of $152,000 converts to the equivalent of $12.5 million when you downsize. The developers behind a miniaturized development called Leisureland Estates promise an extravagant lifestyle for a modest big-world investment. Leisureland has every amenity for small-scale conspicuous consumption: A dollhouse McMansion for every taste, three Cheesecake Factories, and if the little woman is into fancy sparklers, she can buy an entire ensemble of diamond jewelry for under a hundred bucks.
In a full-sized America where it's a struggle to make ends meet, living big by getting small seems like an attractive option. Among those tempted is an earnest, well-intentioned fellow from Omaha named Paul Safranek (Matt Damon in pudgy prosthetics). Paul is an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, helping other workers with their repetitive injuries. He meant to go to med school, but settled for less when he had to care for a peevish and demanding sick mother. Paul has been settling (and accommodating the women in his life) ever since. Now married, his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) wants a nicer house and a nicer life, but the couple finds a mortgage in Omaha unattainable. So when a high school friend (Jason Sudeikis) comes back to Nebraska five inches tall, and regales Paul with his fabulous new life, Paul and Audrey take the plunge.
Unfortunately, no matter what your size, the American Dream can prove elusive. Paul goes through the medical process but still ends up taking both an emotional and a financial hit. His McMansion life is short-lived. He is soon living in a modest Leisureland condo and his life is far from leisurely. Working customer service for Lands' End is a fresh new hell, and even the quiet of his apartment is often marred by the noisy parties thrown by his penthouse neighbor upstairs. That neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz) is a profiteer trading in downsized contraband like Cuban cigars. (Imagine how many tiny smokes you could make from a single Cohiba?) Dusan views the downsized colonies around the world as the "Wild West" and acts accordingly. He encourages Paul, whom he considers nice but "pathetic," to loosen up. Drug-hazed partying only leaves Paul face down on a filthy carpet. But that leads to a momentous meeting with a Vietnamese dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), downsized against her will a decade earlier by her government and then shipped to the U.S. in a TV box. The only survivor of a human trafficking atrocity, she lost a lower leg and foot to her injuries.
Once a cause célèbre, she is now just a cleaning woman. For in a world where there are mansions and penthouses, there must be an underclass to clean them. Through Ngoc Lan, Paul soon learns about a miniature high-rise ghetto on the other side of "The Wall" of Leisureland, where small poor and sick workers struggle to live…with more than a little help from the saintly (if irascible) Ngoc Lan.
It is at this point in the film that many viewers who thought they were going to see a cheery little social comedy about miniature folks living the good life in their pretty Barbie Dream House world will likely become even more irascible than Ngoc Lan. As is the case with so many movies, the promotional trailers for Downsizing did the film a serious disservice. Although the Payne and Taylor screenplay is not without its humor, and the film's special effects and its handsomely absurd production design are capable of adding wonder and wizardry to the proceedings, this movie is not a lighthearted farce. Nor is it a "family film" that most children would enjoy. This is a serious film for adults about the destructive nature of human greed and the redemptive nature of human compassion. And at its heart is a brilliant, breakout performance by Hong Chau.
I do think that the film might have benefited from a few of the sf/horror tropes that we associate with this type of story. The attack of the house cat and spider certainly added excitement to the philosophical musings of The Incredible Shrinking Man. So, in Downsizing, I kept waiting for the revenge of (full-sized) nature in the form of an exciting scene—or two—of predation. Although Leisureland is an enclosed, climate-controlled housing development. The Norwegian colony and Ngoc Lan's tenement building, outside The Wall, are not. In New Mexico, wouldn't owls, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and even a roadrunner be interested in making a meal of a five-inch-tall humanoid?
In the same way that the filmmakers ignore the mannerisms of science-fiction filmmaking, they also fail to delve deeply into global socio-political issues that they hint at with their story. So, in one sense, Downsizing fails because it is neither fish nor fowl. It can't commit as a science-fiction film and it never becomes the biting social satire the first act seems to intimate.
And still, I would not call Downsizing a bad movie. In fact, I would call it a very satisfying film, if you are willing to accept it on its own unique terms. The environmental weltschmerz the film starts to leave us with is soon replaced with an activist's sense of social responsibility and practical kindness. The planet may be doomed, but there is always hope in our common humanity.
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